The professionalization of pharmacy in Senegal dates to the 1920s and, until independence, it was almost entirely dominated by whites.
In a panel on "Drugs in Africa" at the African Studies Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in November, Donna Patterson, a historian in the department of africana studies at Wellesley College, presented a paper on "Drug Trafficking in Africa: Historical Cases from West Africa," which in contrast to other papers on the panel looked at the commerce in legal pharmaceuticals. The discussion that followed made clear the value of exploring the histories of "legal" and "illegal" drugs in conjunction one with the other -- something that has rarely been done for Africa, where the focus has been much more on understanding the linkages between "traditional" and Western medicine. At the same time, the discussion led us to consider how those very linkages might inform our understanding of the trade and consumption of various kinds of drugs -- however categorized -- in African societies.
Patterson specializes on Francophone Africa, African-Atlantic exchange, health, and gender and is working on a larger project, "Expanding Professional Horizons: Pharmacy, Gender, and Entrepreneurship in 20th-Century Senegal," that examines the emergence and expansion of African medical professionalization between 1918 and 2000. That work explores the growth of the African biomedical industry, African access to French systems, and the training of doctors, pharmacists, and midwives.
It also considers the origins and expansion of African-owned pharmacies in colonial and postcolonial Senegal. And she has begun to study the history of African American pharmacists in New Orleans.
Patterson's fascinating paper sketched the history of pharmacy in Senegal -- a topic about which there is almost no scholarship. In fact, there's almost no research on pharmacy anywhere in Africa. Drawing on arguments made by Jean and John Comaroff, Patterson traced a history that blurred distinctions between legal and illegal against a background of racial privilege. The professionalization of pharmacy in Senegal dates to the 1920s and until independence it was almost entirely dominated by whites. From a very early stage there is evidence of circumvention of regulations and by the post-war period trafficking in pharmaceuticals was linked to various kinds of smuggling -- although not apparently to trade in illegal narcotics. From the 1960s the pharmacy profession became increasingly Africanized and expanded very rapidly. Various kinds of trafficking continued -- involving both the importation and distribution of legally produced pharmaceuticals outside of legal channels and the production and distribution of counterfeit drugs. By the 2000s these trades had become big business and a market in Dakar had become the focus of the trade. In 2008-09 this market became the site of a major confrontation between traders and the authorities, which seemed to have much more to do with struggles over control and profits than with actual suppression. The market was, in fact, burned to the ground, but quickly revived.